Grassroots or viral marketing campaigns are nothing new, but over the past 18 months record labels and PR firms have taken more interest in them. The campaigns even have a new, less disease-oriented name: “new media marketing.” As for why the industry’s interested, perhaps it’s because last year saw two enormous successes built almost entirely off bottom-up buzz: Label-less Brooklyn indie-poppers Clap Your Hands Say Yeah rode amateur MP3 blog excitement to sold-out Irving gigs, and topped Billboard’s independent charts. Across the Atlantic, demos by Sheffield’s Arctic Monkeys circulated for an entire year online before Domino signed the band. Spiting “file-sharing is destroying music” pundits, their Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not LP is now the fastest selling debut in UK history.
“At this point MP3s are a necessary evil,” says one New York-based new media specialist. Legality prevents PR firms from leaking material themselves, he says, but when an MP3 blogger is contacted, the expectation is that s/he will leak at least a song or two. The strategy preys on the blog world’s unquenchable thirst for the new—both rarities and pre-releases. “I’m doing you a favor and you’re doing me a favor at the same time,” says another new media specialist. “We’ll scratch each other’s back.”
The ethics are a bit sticky—since 2004, the Word of Mouth Marketing Association has been trying to define them. Published as a draft on February 9, WOMMA’s code is based on the “Honesty ROI”: “Honesty of Relationship (You say who you’re speaking for); Honesty of Opinion (You say what you believe); Honesty of Identity (You never obscure your identity).” The code is not government-enforced, but the goal is that “honest companies” will abide: “Marketers need be truthful and transparent. Consumers come first.”
Not yet. “I will do anything,” says one publicist in response to the WOMMA code. “Whatever gets people talking about my client’s product. There is no moral line.”
One example: Late December, word spread about an amateur website belonging to a small protest group, Mothers Against Noise (mothersagainstnoise.org). “If you are a concerned parent whose child is listening to NOISE and would like to do something about it, you have come to the right place,” read the site’s first lines. Founded by one M. Smith, the group wants to rid the world of “unpleasant or painful or extremely loud or discordant sound.” Top offenders include Wolf Eyes (they “encourage there [sic] fans to break laws”), Merzbow (“Merzbow is Anti-God”), John Cage (“his life turned out to be a Cage”), Radiohead (a noise “gateway band”), and To Live and Shave in L.A. (“a most vile anti-authoritarian noise band”). Noise, writes Smith, is “hell bent on destroying civilized culture.”
Was this a hoax? Turns out the creators of mothersagainstnoise.net had, in fact, hijacked the source code from mothersagainstnoise.us, the real site Smith had designed. The hijackers had taken her site more or less verbatim, but sauced up the text and top offender list. The kicker: Mothersagainstnoise.org creators reported that, if you performed a WHOIS search on mothersagainstnoise.us, you’d see that the domain’s owner was Universal Music. “As usual, the Big Record Companies take the public for idiots and keep trying to royally fuck them in the ass,” the .org pranksters wrote. They also pointed out that, on the actual M.A.N. site, the only noise offender to have out-links was To Live and Shave in L.A. Universal Music, they concluded, had invented the M.A.N. website to create buzz for the band’s upcoming spring release.
Except that, according to Tom Smith, leader of To Live and Shave in L.A. and a 30-year veteran who famously played with Pussy Galore, Universal is not putting out the next TLASILA album; small indie Menlo Park is. “It’s really not me, I gotta tell you,” says Smith over the phone. “But we deserve to be on a fucking major label. Fuck yeah. Give me the cash. If anybody needs to be on a major it’s us.”
So who’s responsible? And for what? Smith denied a role in the spoof (though he does share a last name with M.A.N.’s founder), so did Menlo Park. Perhaps the mothersagainstnoise.org founders themselves just created this pass-the-buck drama to drum up interest in their own product: a free noise compilation, currently entering its second volume. Either way, when the agency disappears into the background, the product still remains, and that’s the goal—even if Smith, currently an ethics grad student, insists, “I’m not at a point where I want to lie about this shit.”